Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Manlio Simonetti presents an introduction to patristic exegesis. At only ix+154 pages, it is an exemplar of concise scholarship. Bypassing minutiae and picayune tangents, Simonetti excels at sketching the main currents of exegetical development.
The first chapter examines Jewish and Greek hermeneutical traditions that influenced early Christians. Simonetti avoids a simplistic Jew/Greek dichotomy, noting that both groups embraced various approaches to sacred literature. Issues regarding “literal” and “allegorical” readings, though not as sharply defined as in modern hermeneutics, occupied the attention of interpreters even before Christianity. Thus, the Christians inherited eclectic and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward the text.
The rest of the book details chronologically the development of exegesis. Often, the urgency of polemics drove hermeneutical creativity. Catholic exegesis was shaped by the Scriptural claims of rival groups, particularly Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Arians. Here Simonetti is especially helpful, for he demonstrates that the Catholics were not always hermeneutically distinguishable from their opponents. Neither the Nicene/Arian nor the Alexandrian/Antiochene controversies can be reduced simply to allegorical vs. literal exegesis. At several points, Simonetti exposes inconsistencies between an author’s stated hermeneutical positions and his actual practice. Even where distinct schools are visible, patristic exegesis tended to be eclectic and messy. Early church interpreters were working their way toward hermeneutical rules, not from them.
A relevant but stand-alone appendix offers “Some Observations on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture in the Patristic Period.” In it, Simonetti calls attention to the role of external forces in shaping exegesis. Certain passages called upon to buttress one doctrine in the Trinitarian controversies suddenly find their meaning shifting as the Christological controversies or other opponents come to the fore. The specific examples are enlightening, the larger point vital.
Biblical Interpretation is exceptionally useful for a student seeking an entry point into deeper study. Simonetti provides copious primary source references and a select bibliography of the best works in English, French, German, and Italian. The only negative aspect of the book comes from its brevity. Simonetti uses few lengthy examples, preferring instead to cite references. Of course, readers can always look them up, but they may not always be easily accessible. In any case, doing so detracts from the narrative and blunts the argumentative punch a bit. That notwithstanding, Biblical Interpretation has secured a permanent spot in my library. I expect to return to it frequently.